Under the Language: A Conversation with Pierre Joris on Paul Celan

That accurateness of actually knowing what you’re talking about in the various realms. When I started writing, it was Ginsberg, it was Kerouac, that I had discovered in Europe already, Bob Kaufman — very, very important. Now, for him, it is understandable — it is the mother’s tongue, it is also the tongue of the murderers of the mother. So I just wonder if you have any thoughts about that. And I think that is something that we can still certainly get a sense of from the way that our daily and our political language is badly used and devalued. He goes to Vienna and moves out. I don’t say unreadable, but it has to say, hey, I’m a translation. Celan’s fame began early, with the publication of “Todesfuge” [Deathfugue], a hypnotic and incantatory vision of the Nazi camps. His publication of the prose volume Microliths They Are, Little Stones (Contra Mundum) and the early poetry, collected as Memory Rose into Threshold Speech (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), concludes Joris’s work of bringing all of Celan’s literary work into English. I was discovering at the same time American poetry, and I decided to write in English. And then that thing happened with the “Todesfuge.” The next poetry that was important was when I discovered the Beats. Everybody has a different insight into some riddle. … a translation means, as Hölderlin said about his translations from Greek, he’s writing Greek in German. So that claim of German is absolute because so much of Celan’s work is directed to the mother, and to what happened to the family. Then about the clear-sightedness he had in terms of writing after events such as Khurbn [the Holocaust], as I like to call it in Jerry Rothenberg’s phrase. He wrote a bit in Romanian, and obviously vast amounts in French for the last 30 years of his life. So I was reading the American avant-garde of that moment, from the Donald Allen anthology — 1945 to 1960. The book is built as four or five or six cycles of poems, and what was fascinating to me is that you were structurally in a place that was a sequence of works, poems that could be read as one sentence in an ongoing process of sentences. I mean, as an example of that depth, I wrote that long essay you may know about the poem he wrote for Heidegger [“Todtnauberg”] in the Hutte, Heidegger’s dwelling in the Black Forest. I came to Bard College. I mean, I always wanted to be a writer, but I was a reader of Karl May and I wanted to write adventure stories and become a novelist. And in Paris, as a medical student, I had already found a translation of Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness in ’67.   Because I had a very close sense that Celan had moved somewhere that was the most interesting poetry I had read. I had nothing to say to him, except, you know, can I touch your hand, Mr. And so in the spring of ’68 I decided to translate Atemwende into English, with Robert Kelly as my advisor. And it reminds me of the essay Jack Spicer wrote in the ’50s when the new edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry came out and he identified the fascicles, which are only coming to be known then, as precursors for his own work. My sense is that if I want to speak to mine in comparison to most, is that I am maybe the most literal — that is, I take my cue from Hölderlin …
That’s just what I was thinking! A survivor whose parents were both murdered in the early 1940s, Celan remained haunted by their deaths, and by the specter of fascism and antisemitism, for the rest of his life. For those who may not be familiar with Celan’s tropologies, January 20 is the opening date of Büchner’s novel Lenz, but it is also the date of the Wannsee Conference, which was the Nazi convening to decide on the Final Solution. And that French word faisceau goes back to the Latin word fasces, which gives the rod, the bundle, the baton [from which we derive the word fascism]! But he was adamant that he had to write in German and that poetry had to be written in the mother tongue. So it seemed to me that Celan, with some years advance, was doing the same thing — getting away from the single masterwork. In the introduction to Microliths, I further say why he probably didn’t become a great prose writer. In 1970, he took his own life. 
His early collections — Poppy and Memory, Threshold to Threshold, Speechgrille, and NoOnesRose — are marked by lush and often bizarre imagery derived in equal parts from folk materials, French surrealism, and the visionary German-language poets he admired: Hölderlin, Rilke, and Trakl. At the same time, I brought the Celan over, so I always had that doubleness of schlepping my European identity with me, and that involved everything that’s Celan’s world — I’m born in ’46, the last year Celan is in Romania is 1947. Well, I think we need to keep reading him throughout this time to get a certain clarity. Now, at last, a century after his birth, we can begin again to read the work of Paul Celan. He, however, was more interested, and I think this connects with what he said about the need to rework the German, to bring other things into German, and write in German doing all those translations — the Fergendienst or ferryman’s labor that you mentioned early on which to me is very important. It was that absoluteness. The poem that is easier to read in translation, where the translation reads better than the original, that’s a bad translation. In high school, my German teacher, Ortan Scholler, brought a peripatetic wandering scholar into German literature class to read us current German poetry. A Celan poem is difficult to read for a native German speaker! Atemwende is written in the early ’60s, and what is new for Celan is that the poems now no longer have titles. So you’re immediately in a very complex Celan landscape. PIERRE JORIS: I think it is the work that came out of the mid-20th century that most directly addresses the disaster, if you want, of Western culture. I once described his relation to Germany as that of a guerrilla fighter from Paris. And this is, I think, the way that today we have to read Celan. And, as Jerry Rothenberg who I just mentioned once said, after Auschwitz, only poetry was possible, but a certain kind of work. I wonder if you have any thoughts about the impact of Dickinson or in general his translation practice on his own work because it seems of all the 20th-century poets, he’s maybe the one who is the most founded in translation as poetic practice. And I realized, thinking about it, that that there was another way of using language — not how we use it now in the family, at home, on the street. When he rebuilds the world that he wants to rebuild, he builds an ecological world in an odd way, closer to the complexity found in nature: those ice crystals, the penitents’ snow, all his knowledge of botany, which was immense. A bit later I translated Mexico City Blues into French and a selected Corso, and much later I did some Ginsberg. In the introduction to the prose volume, Microliths, I say at the end how relevant that work is today. Yes, and that exegesis of a single word is such a wonderful précis of Celan’s method, and both the joy and the trial of reading him, but especially of translating him. In that sense, rather than some kind of Rilkean vague nature poet, Celan had that accuracy, and that is something that we absolutely need in terms of the ecological disaster that we’re living into. Not because he couldn’t have been: he could have been as good as Kafka. You could write poems. What are your thoughts as we live through this time, as we look to this election, about the relevance of his work and life to our moment of political crisis? But the operations he needed to do on language were such that he needed to concentrate on single words, on word constructions. I never got to meet him because I had already done Atemwende in ’69, it was done — I had it as my thesis with me, but in Paris I didn’t want to go see him. Then when you dig closer into Wasen, the wasen also where the Schinder [knacker], that is the one who kills animals, buries the dead animals. But if you actually go and look at what wasen is — it’s not wiesen, it’s an A, it’s one letter that’s different. It’s like having different translations of the Bible. But since you mentioned the 20th of January inauguration — when I translated most of The Meridian, I was at the American Academy on the Wannsee, just across from the chateau where the Nazis met. You know, he’s haunted me, in a very profound way. That is what turned me toward poetry. And so I imitated, I twisted, I worked with the hope of coming out at the other end differently. That’s the first honest thing a translation does. 
You alluded at the beginning of our conversation to Celan as kind of a poet of the disaster of Western civilization more broadly. I didn’t start writing the next day, but that opened up poetry and so on, and a couple of years later I wrote my first poems and always kind of thought back on Celan. Well, that’s wonderful to know. In that sense, the man [Theodor Adorno] who said you cannot write poetry after Auschwitz is wrong. ¤
DAVID BRAZIL: Paul Celan called the work of the translator Fergendienst — a ferryman’s labor. I think the desire is still to read the “Todesfuge” and the early work as the great work, because, you know, you have individual poems of greatness and richness — consider what “Todesfuge” did to me! So in terms of all these years spent in attention to his work, how has that impacted your practice as a poet, as essayist and critic and as an anthologist? So it’s in contradistinction to concentration camps — where the dead were buried was always maniacally level so that nobody could see anything sticking out. And so I thought I would write myself through my Celan association and I wrote a short book there — four poems, which came out as a single book at one point — that I called the Book of Luap Nalec, which is Paul Celan spelled backward. We need to find ways in which we can we see what is going down and we don’t know if, you know, by the time you send me the transcript of this, we may actually be in the street. The poem was being misused. I wonder if you have some thoughts about that aspect of his work: what is the disaster beyond the specific historical circumstance, beyond the biographical circumstance that is written into his work? This was a level of involvement where language could get you to that was totally unique. I sent 10 pages of the Derrida and the Foucault to publishers in New York. So I was both learning this about Celan, and learning this about poetry and poetics. This year also commemorates a half-century of Celan translations by poet, essayist, and anthologist Pierre Joris. Because I feel like that is something you see more and more in the later work where it takes flight into some other territory while still remaining anchored in the reality of what he underwent and “what happened” — the Khurbn, or Holocaust. Prose is a question of sentences, of syntax, you know, and he didn’t feel that was really the most available mode. And he passed in the early ’70s. 
I’m curious to know about what you have learned from other translations and translators of Celan and where you might differ in your philosophy because your translations are quite distinct. The publication of the prose book Microliths They Are, Little Stones and the collected early poems of Memory Rose into Threshold Speech concludes half a century of your own ferryman’s labor in bringing all of Celan’s literary writing into English. To him, it was as important as writing. And, you know, there is that wonderful word construction in there with the German word Waldwasen. That’s why he is difficult to read, but an immense pleasure, and I think the absolute relevance of the work is there once you realize that those verticalities, those polysemies are where Celan lives, and where the work is still totally as alive today when you do that kind of reading as it was when he wrote it. But it was not “literature” either, you know, between quotation marks. Recurrent and unfounded charges of plagiarism deepened his anxiety, and his last decade was marked by recurrent institutionalizations. I totally remember because it is what brought me to poetry. And I want to write German in English when I translate Celan. After so much study and after so many years, why do you think Celan’s work has remained so durable and influential? The disaster is also the disaster’s use of language, as we can see right now — what happens to language. He is the editor of Wave Books’s edition of Philip Whalen’s Scenes of Life at the Capital. Absolutely. Paul Celan in the streets in ’68 makes me smile. So I wanted to ask following that — I mean, there’s so much I want to ask following that — but what was your first encounter with Celan? And he says uneingeebnet — unleveled. He said in one of his essays that the language has to become gray in order to be able to carry the burden, it has to lose its lushness and not be mimetic. I see also in a very strange way, his total interest in the natural world — plants, ice. I’ve been following your work on Celan for decades, collecting the individual volumes as they came out or as I found them in used bookstores. You could not use the same language. There are words that will be infected and stay infected. He had other languages — and if you read the letters that he wrote to Gisele, and so on, he could have written, as I have said, as good French as André Gide. On January 20, I was writing in that introduction that Celan was dismissed in his lifetime by the Germans, the French, and others as being a paranoid for saying that underneath that so-called Wirtschaftsbund, that great social democracy, there lurked all the old demons of fascism, of totalitarianism, of antisemitism, and he was exactly right. I didn’t like much else that was written in Germany, and I didn’t like much of the French postwar poetry. There’s even that completely fake notion that he stopped — that he was verstummen, falling silent, because the poems became very tight and narrow little constructs. You know, his spiritual brother Osip Mandelstam was in Russia looking out that way, and his spiritual mother, the poet Nelly Sachs was in Sweden looking around, you know, and Celan was in the West and going east into Germany in short stabs to do readings, bring information back and stay there, stuck as he was having to write in German. And after that I didn’t fear anymore that Celan would haunt me all my life and would haunt my writing all my life. You know, one can go and read the political people that he liked — the anarchists and socialists of the early part of the 20th century. He was a radical thinker, in that sense, very deeply. I always thought of that because, you know, before I translated him I crossed the Atlantic in a plane carrying Atemwende with me — I was beginning my Fergendienst over the Atlantic! Then you go to the etymology of the word wasen — that is not wiesen, not meadow — wasen comes from a Southern German word that goes back to a French word faisceau, because it’s connected with bundling wood and taking it out of the forest. So it’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to express my gratitude for your work. But, in fact, if you look he wrote more in the last years of his life than he had ever written before. And I thought, maybe I’ll drop out again, so I had these books and could maybe make a living as a translator. We can’t take direct lessons from him because our situation is other. But we can also realize that — I spoke to this a bit earlier — we learn that under the language, the way language is used needs to be opened up so that you can see all of what is hidden. But the second year I had to start my dissertation and I had to do a thesis. The three months I was there, I was at work on that, and I worked on it a lot, so that book is the one that took me the longest to translate. And that is what Celan in a way showed us, that you have to be extremely conscious of language and you have to operate on the word-matter itself. In that sense, Celan has stayed along with me. I spoke with Pierre Joris over Zoom in late October 2020 about his long apprenticeship to Celan’s work, the challenges of translation represented by this author’s poetry, and the political meaning of the oeuvre in light of present crises. Well, that makes me want to ask — 2020 is the 100th anniversary of Celan’s birth, the 50th anniversary of his death, and also the 50th anniversary of your association with the work. It’s that wonderful strangeness — he could have written in two or three other languages! This was something else. So that is where you have to read Celan. My son is a filmmaker and just made a bank heist movie in Texas, set in the late ’20s — I saw myself doing that when I was a kid because my grandmother had a movie house. JANUARY 20, 2021

2020 MARKS THE 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Celan, and the 50th anniversary of his death. In a way I take it to be the poet’s work, to become hyper-conscious of the use of language and expose that as you can, while doing the other work. It rhymes with the “Arnika, augentrost” [“Arnica, eyebright”], the a’s in the first line, which are healing plants so everybody translates Waldwasen as the meadow — the lovely little romantic area in the forest where the poet can relax. And as I began reading around, I discovered very quickly that Celan himself was very tired of “Todesfuge” and had put the poem to rest, no longer allowing it to be used in anthologies, for very specific reasons. It has to be something else. So then I had to do this very complex dance between learning to write in English (my fourth language!), and becoming a poet in that in that language. Celan? Do you remember the first time you read it, the first time you heard his name? That’s what he said. Well, it certainly affected it, obviously. And I couldn’t help but notice that Inauguration Day 2017 fell on January 20. ¤
David Brazil is a poet, pastor and translator. These singular and sovereign works declare, as the poet states in the title poem of Threadsuns, that “there are / still songs to sing beyond mankind.”
Celan’s reputation has only grown since his death. You know, the whole idea, for example, that “Todesfuge,” which was considered to be a great, great work, would be a kind of masterwork, you know, like a great Picasso painting or something. I’m also reminded at the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned that you had written your introduction on the 20th of January, about which Celan spoke when he received the Büchner Prize and gave the speech now called The Meridian, which you translated. His work has been the focus of studies by philosophers and critics including Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maurice Blanchot, Peter Szondi, and Giorgio Agamben. So I think he was someone who never put translation as a secondary thing. I bought the early volumes that I still have. And then I discovered that Celan had rewritten the “Todesfuge,” which at that point he no longer permitted to be republished, in the poem “Stretto.” And there he did away with all those lush, metaphorical, repetitious images. That’s when I started translating. And then if you begin digging into what the wasen is, it’s the turf — the top of a meadow in the grassland, but with the roots underneath. We are at such an absolute, absolute juncture. And he read the post–World War II German poetry, the Bestandsaufnahme poetry, very spare. This is the collection that begins Joris’s translation of Celan’s final books, which also includes Threadsuns, Tenebrae’d, and the posthumously published Lightduress, Snowpart, and Timestead. You address this issue in your new introduction, and we’ve talked about it: about what Celan means to us who are engaged in the struggle against totalitarianism, against the threat of fascism, against the misuse of language. I’m still waiting to hear from them. The translation has to be more difficult to read. You know, we were mainly reading comics under the bench, and so on. But his work presents such unique challenges to the translator that until now English-language readers have been denied access to his complete body of work. Yes, yes! And, of course, those of us who love Celan usually have all of the translations on our shelves. Paul did go out in 1968, on a couple of the marches — he was all for that. And then the man read Celan’s “Todesfuge.” And I had maybe the only epiphany in my life — I had the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Recently I looked at some very early writing, early work — and obviously there’s a lot of poems in there that are bad imitations of Ginsberg or of Celan. I decided to write in English when I was 18, and when I dropped out of medical school in Paris and decided to come to America. One, it brought me to poetry. I had three books with me: Derrida’s De la grammatologie, Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses, and Celan’s Atemwende. (His previous translations include Celan’s later poems, Breathturn into Timestead, and the poet’s major theoretical statement, The Meridian.) For the first time, readers without knowledge of German have access to all the important poetry and prose of an author whom many consider to be the preeminent voice of 20th-century literature. And at the same time, I was discovering certain Americans like Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, who were talking of exactly that need of writing sequential longer works. So the wasen is immediately also a cemetery. You know, he’s getting paranoid and he’s losing it. And then about the mid-’70s, I was living in London, and I realized I needed to deal with this. Breathturn (1967) is often seen as a decisive shift toward the work characteristic of his late style: short, spare, and often gnomic poems, now without titles, are collected into cycles whose logic must be teased out by the reader. His third book of poetry, Holy Ghost (City Lights, 2017), was nominated for a California Book Award. And then the late work, most people think of it as kind of, oh, he’s going nuts. Can you can you say a little more about why you started with the work with Atemwende and after? Celan worked on the problems of language out of the totalitarian situation and his transformations, his surgical interventions in the German language, had to do with the consciousness that if language is misused in the way it was misused, well, that sticks to the language somewhere. I was very interested in one thing you said about the serial poem of the Berkeley Renaissance writers and the way that’s prefigured in the structures in Celan’s later poetry. Because when you read some of the translations — and I don’t want to mention anybody — you get very smooth nice running English poems where to my mind there’s no Celan left. So I think of the clear-sightedness that man had in relation to the political situation in his time. That is also the poet’s work. I referred earlier to certain crystal ice structures. It is not something that is opened up like that. He was clear that the language needed to be transformed. And of course, Celan translated Dickinson, among many other poets.